Attorney General asked to weigh in on judges’ $235,000 benefits
September 26, 2011
EDITOR’S NOTE: See the courts’ shrinking budget, a comparison of SLO County judges’ annual benefits from 1997 to 2010, a letter from the Commission on Judicial Performance to the attorney general and a letter from the California Judges’ Association to the attorney general at the bottom of this story.
By KAREN VELIE
California’s Attorney General is deciding whether the Commission on Judicial Performance can discipline San Luis Obispo County judges for giving themselves perks that total more than $235,000 a year, according to documents and sources familiar with the issue.
The commission says that judges have improperly padded their benefits. It wants to know if a state law protects the judges from discipline or prosecution, the request to the attorney general’s office reads.
The judges’ votes to take additional perk without oversight or legislative approval has drawn criticism from the executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
“No government should be without oversight and able to raise their own salaries,” Kris Vosburgh said. “At no level of government should the foxes be governing the hen house.”
The 1998 Trial Court Funding Act moved control of court spending out of the state’s county boards of supervisor’s hands to the judges in order to make the court system more efficient and uniform. It was part of a plan to reform the courts’ budgeting process. But, the Legislature did not complete the second part and the state’s judges kept the power and the ability to set their own benefits without any public accountability.
After getting control of the local state court budget, judges in San Luis Obispo County began voting themselves perks without complying with the Brown Act, fair political practices or state regulations on public appropriations, according to emails from San Luis Obispo superior court and documents.
SLO judges’ perks, on top of benefits provided by the state, have become some of the most generous in the state, according to a 2009 Report to the Senate Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review.
SLO judges get an average salary of $178,789 per year. But the judges also split an extra $235,000 a year in perks.
Perks include $72,000 a year for car allowances even though the judges do not drive as part of their job responsibilities. The judges also get $101,664 in cash to spend on health and other insurance plans, according to court staff.
In 2004, the judges voted to create an education allowance of $46,200 to split amongst themselves. The judges get the money, paid in cash, and are not required to provide receipts. The judges also charge the court budget for classes they attend, former courthouse insiders told CalCoastNews.
Even though other state judges chose to retain the benefits packages they received while under the control of their boards of supervisors, SLO’s judges, who served at the time, agreed to substantially raise some former benefits and add new benefits categories, according to the 2009 report to the Legislature and information from more than a dozen county courts.
While still under the county’s control, SLO’s judges split $396 for long term disability, $973 for term life insurance, $877 for a fitness plan and $350 for a cafeteria health plan, said SLO Court Executive Officer Susan Matherly.
After gaining control of their budget, SLO’s judges voted to add a car allowance of $72,000 and increase their cafeteria-style health plan to $101,664, Matherly said.
Even though the state constitution only allows the Legislature to raise or set judicial compensation, the judges of San Luis Obispo County voted to raise or create new benefits on several occasions, courthouse insiders said.
And, only San Luis Obispo County judges voted in new benefits packages using state court funds without getting Legislative approval.
Sources intimately involved in the courts said SLO judges were told repeatedly that their actions appeared to be unconstitutional, but refused to relinquish their extra benefits.
Calls to the San Luis Obispo County judges involved in the benefits increases were not returned.
Gere Sibbach, the county auditor controller, said he argued with the judges over an attempt they made to provide themselves cash value annuities.
“I have had many concerns with them,” Sibbach said.
In addition to voting to increase their salaries, several former staffers who asked to remain unnamed said that shortly after SLO County judges took control of the court budget, they spent lavishly on themselves, ordering expensive office remodels, new designer furniture, Blackberries, air cleaning systems and laptop computers.
The judges no longer have cell phones and have now enacted polices requiring them to purchase furniture from specific companies in order to control costs, Matherly said. Matherly dismissed the concerns saying that the spending took place 10 years ago.
“It’s old news and not worth reporting,” she said.
In May, the state’s Commission on Judicial Performance asked for the opinion on the legality of judges voting in benefits using state court funds without appropriation by the Legislature, as is required in California’s constitution.
“Although the supplemental compensation in Los Angeles was authorized by the county, judges in other counties have authorized supplemental compensation for themselves from court funds without any action by a legislative body,” the Commission’s Chief Counsel Victoria Henley wrote in her request to the attorney general.
SBX2 11, a bill that appears to prevent the judiciary commission from disciplining judges for padding their benefits, was enacted in response to a lawsuit against Los Angeles County. That suit challenged the county’s ability to vote in supplemental benefits for its judges using county money.
Although Los Angeles County won its suit, SBX2 11 was inserted into the state’s Budget Act at the last minute and passed the same day, the request said.
The Commission argues that only it and the California Supreme Court have the authority to decide on disciplining state judges.
“The Legislature cannot directly or indirectly remove that authority,” the request reads.
California’s Judges Association has fired back strongly in a letter to the Attorney General.
“The Legislature can make laws to protect one from liability, whether civil, criminal or administrative, for past conduct. Whether viewed as a retroactive immunity from liability, a retroactive authorization of conduct, or a retroactive reduction of penalties to zero, this is within the power of the Legislature,” wrote Judge Keith Davis, president of the California Judges Association.
Davis argued that the Legislature has the power to set laws.
“Where the issue is whether a judge can be disciplined for a violation of the law, as is the case here, it is absolutely a legislative prerogative to determine what is and is not a violation of the law,” Davis wrote.
Meanwhile, the state court system budget, under the control of state judges, is $350 million in the red. The judges’ benefits come from the state court budget.
Courts’ shrinking budget
In July, California Judicial Branch leaders met to vote on how to allocate the courts’ shrinking budget, which will be slashed $350 million from a total of $3.5 billion.
SLO County’s court, with an operating budget of about $19 million a year, is facing a $1 million budget deficit.
Slated budget cuts include furlough Fridays to begin in October and the temporary closure of the Grover Beach court branch in January.
The 145 employees of the courts lose up to 20 percent of their pay because of furloughs. The judges will keep getting full paychecks even as their work weeks go to four days.
State law does not allow the judges to have their pay reduced, Matherly said.
“The reason the judges can’t take a salary cut is because there is no legislative authority to do so, Matherly said.
In the past Judges Ginger Garrett, Jac Crawford, Linda Hurst, Martin Tangeman, John Trice, Charles Crandall and Roger Picquet participated in a voluntary salary waiver program, she said.
According to the Constitution, the Legislature cannot lower judiciary pay. Doing so could allow legislatures to punish judges who did not rule the way they would like them to, Matherly said.
Comparison of SLO County judges annual benefits from 1997 to 2010.
1997 – County control 2004 to 2010 – judges control
Long term disability $396 $396
Term life insurance $973 $973
Wellness/fitness $877 $877
Health flex plan $350 $101,664
Life insurance $0 $12,853
Education allowance $0 $46,200
Car allowance $0 $72,000
Letter from the Commission on Judicial Performance to the attorney general
California Judges’ Association response to the attorney general